I am afraid that life has continued to be rather disrupted, which has made any serious writing rather difficult, and this will probably continue for a couple of weeks as I’m still catching up on other things. Anyway, I’m posting this rather long summary of part of chapter two of Being as Communion…

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004).

Chapter 2. Truth and Communion (67-122)

II. Truth, Being and History: The Greek Patristic Synthesis (72-101)

In this rather substantial section, Zizioulas traces the varying approaches to truth in the Patristic era, focusing particularly on its relationship to history. The challenge for the Fathers was to find a way of expressing the ontological character of truth in a way that did justice to the specific revelation of God in Christ.

1. The “Logos” Approach

This approach, which originated with the apologists and especially with Justin, found “its most audacious representatives” in Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Justin’s view of truth was similar if not identical to that of Platonism, and sees it as “something fixed which establishes its links with the world in and through the mind.” (73) For Justin, “Christ as the logos of God, becomes this very link between truth and the mind, and the truth of philosophy is nothing less than part of this logos.” (74) There is a danger here of a dualism between the senses and the intellect and also, more importantly, of an ontological necessity and monism, but this did not become apparent in Justin.

Such ideas were taken over by Clement and Origen but led eventually to the crisis of Arianism, (which meant that later Fathers were rather hesitant about the logos approach until Maximus was to rework it). For Clement, truth was identified with the “nature” of being, which was also identified with “spirit”, leading to Origen’s idea of “spirit” as God’s corporal “substance”. Despite Origen’s desire to be an ecclesiasticus rather than a philosopher, he identified God so closely with creation that “the link between the logos of God and the logoi of creation thus comes to be organic and unbreakable, as in the Greek idea of truth.” (75) Moreover, Origen’s approach to Scripture is more concerned with the meaning of events than with the events themselves so that even the Cross of Christ becomes itself a symbol of something higher. Origen places the accent on eschatology, but this is an eschatology that is orientated towards the eternal significance of events, rather than their consummation in history.

For Origen Christ is “truth itself,” but this is not because of His humanity. While His humanity is not to be rejected, it is only true insofar as it participates in the truth. Thus the reference to truth coming through Jesus Christ in John 1, 17 is understood in cosmological rather than historical terms as something imprinted by God in creation and existing as the very nature of being. Zizioulas comments:

Our remark here, delicate but fundamental, is that “wisdom” does not depend on the Christ-event, but, in a sense, Christ participates in wisdom. We cannot invert the assertion “Christ is the truth” and say “the truth is Christ,” since the historical Christ appears to be the truth precisely because of his participation in truth, being the logos of creation – not because he is Jesus of Nazareth. (77)

The question of how the historical Christ can be understood to be the truth remains unanswered in the logos approach, for it seems to suggest that the incarnation does not realise the truth in a fundamental way but rather reveals a pre-existing truth. By emphasising revelation, which tends towards a unification of existence, it privileges the human mind as the ground of truth and is not easily able to deal with historicity.

2. The Eucharistic Approach

In contrast to the philosophical background of the Logos approach, the Eucharistic approach of bishops like Ignatius and Irenaeus emerged out of a concrete pastoral situation, which led them to an entirely different approach to truth, which was concerned with life. Instead of life being seen as something in opposition to being, it came to be identified with it. Whereas for Aristotle being had preceded life, which was seen as something that we have, for Christians they had become inseparable.

Ignatius built on the Johannine definition of knowledge as “eternal life” or “true life” but provided a more clearly ontological approach to truth with his concern with immortality and incorruptibility. Irenaeus continued this and identified truth not with the mind – which was too identified with the Gnosticism he was contending – but with the incorruptibility of being.

This was an extremely profound assimilation of the Greek concept of truth as the “nature” of things with the Johannine and Ignatian concept of truth as life. Christ is the truth not because he is an epistemological principle which explains the universe, but because he is life and the universe of being finds its meaning in the incorruptible existence in Christ, who takes up into Himself  (a3nakefalai1vsiw) the whole of creation and history. Being is inconceivable outside of life, and because of this the ontological nature of truth resides in the idea of life. (80)

It is this identification of truth and life that was to lay the groundwork for the fourth century Trinitarian theologians. And Zizioulas argues that development emerged not out of an intellectual movement (which did not exist) but rather out of the Fathers’ experience of the Church as a Eucharistic community. In this life is imparted and actualised in an event of communion and thus creation and existence can only be founded on this living God of communion.

3. The Trinitarian Approach

Arianism had shaken the Church’s confidence in the logos doctrine but Athanasius provided the solution by identifying the logos with the Son as part of the Trinity. In his fight against Arianism, Athanasius developed an ontology that distinguished between substance and will. This was needed “in order to make it plain that the being of the Son in his relation to God was not the same kind as the being of the world. The Son’s being belongs to the substance of God, while that of the world belongs to the will of God.” (84-5) This distinction was necessary in his struggle against Arianism, but it also had a broader significance, enabling him to break out of the closed ontological necessity of Greek thought.

Moreover, by connecting the Son’s being with the very substance of God, Athanasius transformed the idea of substance, departing from the cosmological thinking of Justin and Origen and appearing to adopt the eucharistic thinking of Ignatius and Irenaeus. By saying that the Son belongs to God’s substance, Athanasius implies  “that substance possesses almost by definition a relational character.” (84) Thus communion becomes an ontological category for Athanasius.

Athanasius left some questions unanswered however. These relate to the ontological status of creation and to the otherness within God’s substance implied by the assertion that the Son has “always” belonged to God’s being. It was the Cappadocians who were to provide the answer to the latter question.

Whereas Athanasius had understood ousia and hypostasis as the same, with the Cappadocians hypostasis became dissociated from ousia and identified rather with prosopon. But

this latter term is relational, and was so when adopted in trinitarian theology. This meant that from now on a relational term entered into ontology and, conversely, that an ontological category such as hypostasis entered the relational categories of existence. To be and to be in relation becomes identical. (87-88)

Thus person or hypostasis became capable of signifying God’s being in an ultimate sense and makes a biblical doctrine of God possible. However

The subsequent developments of trinitarian theology, especially in the West with Augustine and the scholastics, have led us to see the term ousia, not hypostasis, as the expression of the ultimate character and the causal principle ( a3rxh2)    in God’s being. The result has been that in textbooks on dogmatics, the Trinity gets placed after the chapter on the One God (the unique ousia) with all the difficulties which we still meet when trying to accommodate the Trinity to our doctrine of God. By contrast, the Cappadocians’ position – characteristic of all the Greek Fathers – lay, as Karl Rahner observes, in that the final assertion of ontology in God has to be attached not to the unique ousia of God but to the Father, that is, to a hypostasis or person. (88)

Zizioulas argues that by making the Father the ground of God’s being theology accepted a kind of subordination of the Son to the Father without having to downgrade the Logos into something created. However this was only possible because the Son’s otherness was founded on the same substance. Thus the idea of hypostasis needs to be completed with that of substance if we are to avoid falling back into ontological monism. We need both the three persons and the unique ousia.

4. The “Apophatic” Approach

Zizioulas claims that the development of apophatic theology, far from being rooted in a Platonic/Origenist approach to truth with its tendency to monism, is instead a denial “at its very heart” of a closed Greek ontology. Instead of privileging the prefix ay3to-  (“itself”) as Origen did, the apophatic theologians privileged the prefix y4per- (“beyond” or “above”) providing a radical reorientation in regard to knowledge. 

Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being – about creation, that is – must not be ontologically identified with God. God has “a simple, unknowable existence, inaccessible to all things and completely unexplainable, for He is beyond affirmation and negation.” [Maximus] And therefore truth lies beyond the choice between affirmation and negation. (90)

We should not be confused by the use of Neoplatonic hierarchy imagery, for “the Dionysian ‘hierarchy’ does not imply the emergence of lower existence out of a higher one.” (91) Instead the two characteristic features of apophatic theology as found in Maximus and Dionysius are the ideas of ekstasis which signifies that God is love, creating an imminent relationship of love outside Himself, and the distinction between essence and energy in God which “serves to indicate the relationship between God and the world as ontological otherness bridged by love, but not by ‘nature’ or ‘essence.'” (91)

Thus Zizioulas claims that the apophatic theologians sought to remove the question of truth and knowledge from Greek ontological theory in order to situate it within the realm of love and communion. 

The perspectives offered by an approach to being through love, as arrived at by the mystical and apophatic theologians of the period, led by another route to the same conclusion that the eucharistic and trinitarian approaches of the previous period reached: it is only through an identification with communion that truth can be reconciled with ontology. (92)

 5. The Christological Approach

 The initial logos approach had failed to link the biblical and Greek approaches to truth because it had been unable to account for the historical aspect of Christianity. While it had helped to explain the unity between God and creation, it had been unable to explain the difference. Thus the question that remained unanswered was: 

… how can the truth of created and historical existence be an ontological truth while fully maintaining the ontological otherness of God’s being in relation to creation and history? How, in other words, can ultimate truth be linked up ontologically with creation and history in such a way that creation may keep its own, distinct being, while God remains the ultimate truth of being? (93)

The fourth century theologians had gone some way towards answering this by identifying life, communion and the being of God Himself. However, the challenge was how to do so in a way that avoided identifying God with the world. A distinction gradually developed between “participation” and “communion”: participation is used for creatures in their relationship to God and never for God Himself. Thus “the truth of creation is a dependent truth, while the truth of God’s being is communion in itself.” (94)

However, the question of the relationship between truth and history remained unanswered and it was Maximus the Confessor who was to work out an answer to this.

The challenge for the Greek Fathers in dealing with history had been how to relate being and life to death and decay. Can truth be found in the movement of being when this in fact leads to death and decay? Origen had seen creation as a triad of becoming-rest-motion in which movement was seen as a result of the fall. Maximus changed this by placing rest after motion. 

This change has a twofold result. On the one hand it makes history into something provisional, and therefore impossible to take within the existence of God; while on the other, it makes history meaningful because it possesses a pe1raw, that is to say an end in the positive sense of this word (“fulfilment”). (95)

Thus the truth of history becomes identified with that of creation, but it is seen as being orientated to the future. 

The truth of history lies in the future, and this is to be understood in an ontological sense: history is true, despite change and decay, not just because it is a movement towards an end, but mainly because it is a movement from the end, since it is the end that gives it meaning. (96)

Maximus’ importance, according to Zizioulas, lies in his development of a Christological synthesis in which history and creation become organically related. He sees Christ as the Logos of creation in whom one must find all the logoi of created beings. However, Maximus’ use of the logos concept differs from that of Origen and the Apologists in that he roots not in cosmology but rather in will and love. 

In this way, neither the logoi of things nor the logos of God are conceivable apart from the dynamical movement of love. The substratum of existence is not being but love. The truth possessed by the logos of existence depends only upon love, and not upon some objective structure of a rational kind which might be conceivable in itself. This is extremely important for an understanding of the logos concept, for it leads to an identification of the logoi of things not with nature or being itself, but with the loving will of God. (97)

This is a radical departure from the Greek idea of truth, for the logoi of things are no longer a necessity for God. It is important, moreover, that this departure occurred christologically, for it is this that leads to the synthesis of truth as being and history simultaneously. 

Since God knows created beings as the realizations of His will, it is not being itself but the ultimate will of God’s love which unifies beings and points to the meaning of being. And precisely here is the role of the incarnation. The incarnate Christ is so identical to the ultimate will of God’s love, that the meaning of created being and the purpose of history are simply the incarnate Christ. All things were made with Christ in mind, or rather at heart, and for this reason, irrespective of the fall of man, the incarnation would have occurred. Christ, the incarnate Christ, is the truth, for He represents the ultimate, unceasing will of the ecstatic love of God, who intends to lead created being into communion with His own life, to know Him and itself within this communion-event. (97-98)

6. The Approach through the “Eikon”

The truth of history remains somewhat paradoxical, for it is defined by its end while this is still unfolding. Zizioulas quotes Maximus: “The things of the Old Testament are shadow ( skia1   ); those of the New Testament are image ( ei3kv1n ); and those of the future are truth ( a3lh1ueia ).” (99)       At first sight this would appear to make the incarnation less real than the second coming, but this is to misunderstand ei3kv1n in the thought of the Greek Fathers. 

For all the Greek Fathers except those of the Origenist school, ei3kv1n  always means something real and as true as a3lh1ueia. The long fight over the place of icons in the Church during the eighth and ninth centuries was centered precisely on the question of ascertaining whether it is in any way possible to present truth in the form of an icon, and the demarcation line between the two parties lay precisely in the acceptance or rejection of the truth of the incarnation in its relationship to history and creation. (99)

It is thus wrong to understand the Greek patristic understanding of icons along Platonic lines, in which the image has its reality in the past, or in an original state as taught by Origen and Augustine among others. In contrast to this Zizioulas suggests that 

… the iconological language of the Greek Fathers makes increased sense if seen in the light of primitive apocalyptic theology, such as first developed within the primitive Syro-Palestinian tradition and penetrated throughout the eucharistic liturgies of the East. This tradition presents truth not as a product of the mind, but as a “visit” and a “dwelling” (cf. Jn 1:14) of an eschatological reality entering history to open it up in a communion event. This creates a “vision” of truth not as Platonic or mystical contemplation understands it but as picturing a new set of relationships, a new “world” adopted by the community as its final destiny. (100)


For further reflection:

I’m really not up to posting any serious, much less intelligent, reflection on Zizioulas’ argument at this point. But there are two points that strike me as important for ongoing reflection.

Firstly, the question of the differences, or lack thereof, between the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians and that of Augustine. This is a contested area in which I don’t really have the background to judge (although my sympathies are with Zizioulas and the Cappadocians) but which I need to return to at some point.

Secondly, the question of Zizioulas’ reading of Origen and the contrast that he presents between him and the later Greek theologians. Once more, I don’t have the necessary background to judge at this point, but I’m aware that there may be other possible readings of Origen, or at least various nuances of interpretation, and would be interested in pursuing this further at some point.